The recent HEPI report supporting the right of Welsh-domiciled students to take their student fee grant when studying elsewhere in the UK raises important issues about student choice across the four UK devolved nations. But perhaps none more than in Wales.
The UK government’s decision to raise the fees cap for full‐time undergraduate courses in England to £9,000 from 2012/13 created the largest shift from direct taxpayer funding to contributions made retrospectively from graduates. Recognising that Welsh HEIs were not immune to the growing English competitive market, the Welsh Government’s planned approach to mitigate the effects of this fee increase on Welsh‐domiciled students involved providing a non‐means‐tested tuition fee‐grant which ensured that Welsh students paid no more in real terms, wherever they chose to study in the UK.
This funding comes from the Welsh Government allocation administered through HEFCW with the consequence that the traditional HEFCW grant to HEIs in Wales has been considerably reduced. No other devolved administration chose to adopt this policy option for their domiciled students and questions have been raised regarding the long term sustainability of the current fee grant arrangement, given the not insignificant levels of cross-border flow of students between Wales and England.
In January, this year the Learned Society of Wales (LSW), Wales’s national academy for the sciences, arts and humanities, addressed these issues when it presented it’s submission to the Diamond Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. Aware that additional funding was unlikely to be available, the Society’s offered proposals that were affordable, equitable but also sustainable. The Society’s submission tried to address the twin priorities of supporting Welsh domiciled students while also tackling the historical under funding of the Welsh HE sector. One of the pressing concerns for the LSW since its foundation in 2010 has been to highlight the growing gap in funding between universities in Wales and the rest of the UK. Despite this underfunding, Welsh universities have nevertheless shown themselves to be efficient in translating the relative low levels of research income into high impact research. The Elsevier report in 2014 confirmed that the international impact of Wales’s research rose significantly over the last decade outperforming many similar sized countries and contributing to the UK’s world-leading research base.
One outcome of the historical under-resourcing, however, is the possibility of encouraging more high quality Welsh-domiciled students to study in England where the facilities and the support is better funded. Between 2011 and 2014, there was a fall of 14% in the English-domiciled students accepted in Wales, but an increase of 21% in the number of Welsh-domiciled students accepted in England over the same period. This growing trend of Welsh-domiciled students leaving Wales has meant an increasing proportion of the total fee-grant support leaving Wales. Moreover, analysis of the HESA data showed that those currently choosing to leave Wales are in fact better qualified students, with a high portion from more advantaged social classes. Many of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who opt to stay in Wales, however, do not benefit from the comparatively better facilities and learning support elsewhere. This is not equitable assuming that choice of course and institution should be based on academic criteria rather than affordability.
Consequently, we do not consider that the current Welsh Government funding policy was sustainable or equitable, as it did not provide adequate support for the delivery of good quality higher education for students in Wales. Over half of all full‐time undergraduate acceptances to Welsh institutions in 2014 were of Welsh domicile. The future sustainability of universities in Wales, and by extension quality of provision for those students choosing to study in Wales depends on ensuring that any future higher education fees policy address the historical funding gap.
The funding model suggested in the LSW Report proposed to address both issues. Recognising the importance of providing a solution that preserves the principle of support for Welsh domiciled students exercising their choice to study outside Wales, the Society proposed that the current Welsh Government fee‐grant support should be confined to those most in need. In practice, all Welsh‐domiciled students would bear the burden of full fees, wherever they choose to study, but means tested bursaries should be made available in Wales to support all full and part‐time students in most need. Students leaving Wales already qualify for existing bursaries at their UK HEI of choice, but if not possible, then they should also be eligible to qualify for means tested support from the Welsh government. It also seemed prudent to reserve a small central funding source for bursaries for the small number of students opting for courses not taught in Wales (such as veterinary sciences), but where Wales would benefit from such graduates.
Given the historical context, the savings secured from the above proposal would be used to fund Welsh universities thus ensuring the long term sustainability and competitiveness of the sector and support for the delivery of good quality higher education for students in Wales. Such funding would be used to support important university led activities such as part‐time studies, innovation and engagement, premiums for expensive subjects such as medicine, protection of endangered but strategically important subjects (including Welsh‐medium provision and Wales-related studies) and full time postgraduate taught courses. Without such support, there is a real danger that studying in Wales could be increasingly seen as a less attractive option for graduate and postgraduate students compared to other parts of the UK.